In 1996, archeological investigations conducted in connection with the renovation of the Whitehurst Freeway uncovered a remarkable burial site. Just west of Rock Creek Parkway and south of K St., they identified a pit containing the cremated remains of a 40-year old woman. The pit would have been located on a terrace, with a nice view of the river. It contained a comb carved from antler; two stone pendants; a carved sandstone phallus; a triangular knife; 12 fossilized and two modern shark teeth; bones from a large bird; six antler disks; a wooden bead; and cloth woven of fibers from pawpaw and grass. Radiocarbon dates put this burial at AD 640-790, towards the end of the Middle Woodland period. The Site was located beneath the historical remains of what was Reed Alley, about 15 feet below ground surface.
National Park Service analysis concluded that the site was not typical of this area, but was similar to contemporary burials in upstate New York. The Native Americans who lived in coastal Maryland and Virginia in the 1600s spoke Algonquian languages closely related to languages spoken around the Great Lakes. The site therefore provides evidence pointing to native migration from the Great Lakes region to the Chesapeake.
The Whitehurst Freeway Site may be the most significant site in Foggy Bottom, but native people occupied the area that became Washington DC as early as 10,000 BCE. The area has abundant natural resources and the native peoples hunted, fished, and gathered plants. By 1000 BCE, they grew crops, including corn, squash and beans. They quarried stone to use for tools, weapons, and containers, and these quarries are still visible in Rock Creek Park. Remnants of houses, fire pits, hearths, cooking pots, fishing gear, and tools also have been found in other parts of city. DC’s location at the fall line (where the flat Coastal Plain meets the hilly Piedmont) and confluence of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers made the area a major crossroads and trading center for coastal and interior tribes.
The first documented inhabitants of DC were the Anacostan (also known as Nacotchtank or Nacostine). They were an Algonquian-speaking people that lived near the junction of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. They became part of the Piscataway Chiefdom, which had settlements along the Potomac River and into southern Maryland.
In 1608, Captain John Smith of Virginia sailed up the Potomac and visited Nacotchtank, a fortified village on the south side of what is now the Anacostia river, which was the home of an important leader and a major trading area. The English Jesuit Father Andrew White, accompanying Lord Leonard Calvert in 1634, latinized “Nacotchtank” to “Anacostia.”
Smith’s initial encounter was peaceful, although in 1622 colonists and native American allies attacked the village and took their corn. A year later, the Anacostans attacked an English trading party, killing 20 and capturing an Englishman named Henry Fleet, who and spent five years living with the tribe and learning their language.
Many of the Anacostans and other local native peoples died from diseases introduced by the Europeans and in various conflicts. In the late 1660s, they relocated for a short period to Theodore Roosevelt Island. By the 1700s, the tribe merged with the Piscataways and many migrated to Pennsylvania. Natives remained in southern Maryland, however, and in 2012 Maryland officially recognized the Piscataway Conoy Tribe and the Piscataway Indian Nation. In 2020, the DC City counsel issued free fishing licenses to all members of the tribes, reinstating the terms of a 1666 treaty.
Sources: National Park Service, “The Whitehurst Freeway Sites, Rock Creek Park”; Humphrey, Robert L. and Mary Elizabeth Chambers, “Ancient Washington American Indian Cultures of the Potomac Valley,” George Washington University Studies, No. 6 (1977); Armand Lione, Director, DC Native History Project, http://onceasitwasdc.org/; Dr. Elizabeth Rule, Guide to Indigenous DC.